BOOK REVIEW / Something has gone, never to return: 'Den of Lions' - Terry Anderson: Hodder & Stoughton, 9.99 pounds: Michael Sheridan finds diamonds in the memoirs of Terry Anderson and other hostages
Saturday 23 April 1994
This is not the book I thought he would write. The old Anderson, the one who quotes Churchill, would have come back armed with the weapons of an investigative reporter to punish his tormentors. But in the long years of captivity a new Anderson emerged. Exhilaration gave way almost to despair and the stillness of imprisonment took over from what he recalled as 'overwork, too much alcohol, and the emotional and psychological toll of unending violence.' In the dark, he turned back to the Bible and to his own Roman Catholic upbringing for solace.
Anderson's story of life in the dungeon is one common to all hostage books. It has been told before, eloquently by Brian Keenan, with humour by John McCarthy and in painful humility by Terry Waite. The same characters populate all their accounts: the guards, stupid, sadistic or bored; each other; the anonymous masters of Hizbollah who came at intervals to decree murder or dispense freedom; and the relatives left behind on the outside. Like Jill Morrell, Anderson's second wife Madeleine Bassil, a Lebanese Christian, has added her own tale of loneliness and depression to her partner's narrative.
The finest testament by a loved one, however, is available only in French. Marie Seurat's husband Michel, a French academic, died of terminal disease in Hizbollah's cellars. Her memoir, Les Corbeaux D'Alep, ranged from the scented gardens of her childhood in Syria to the final trauma of Beirut, her emotional torture at the hands of Hizbollah and their casual announcement of Michel's death. It is bitter, wise and humane.
Another French hostage, Roger Auque, used his book to savage his captors, while Jean-Paul Kauff- mann preferred to muse on the civilising memory of fine Bordeaux. Anderson composed poems, some of which appear in this book. He also interviews Lieutenant-Colonel Oliver North and some of the other players in the drawn-out hostage drama of the Eighties.
Much of the self-examination, poetry and religious enthusiasm, I suspect, will prove more to American than British taste. But all the virtues of the old and the new Anderson come together in the recognition he gives to people who sought little publicity for their efforts to set him free. By contrast, he does not chide the hangers-on whose involvement sometimes served their own interests as much as his.
The sad reality is that apart from those who, in the words of Terry Waite, 'discovered the meaning of redemption through suffering,' few people came honourably out of the hostage affair, which dragged on, consuming acres of newsprint from 1984 to 1991. Anderson's is probably the last of the big hostage books and yet, despite the collective outpouring of experience, nothing so far published amounts to historical truth. For connoisseurs in search of political facts - what actually happened? who did it? why? - reading each book is like panning mud for diamonds. The only comprehensive survey, Hostage, is not actually written by a hostage but by Con Coughlin of the Sunday Telegraph. The earlier genre of hostage books, such as those by Benjamin Weir and David Jacobsen, displayed understandable reticence because others still languished in captivity. But the latest crop of memoirs does not enlighten us much further.
While covering the Middle East I interviewed two people briefly held hostage by Hizbollah. One had been aboard a hijacked Kuwaiti plane, the other was detained at a roadblock in Beirut. Each recounted the same story. An interrogation conducted to professional intelligence standards had ended with a warning never to divulge certain details, identities or events witnessed during their detention. If they talked, they would be hunted down in California or Paris and killed. On release, they kept silent.
This, I suspect, is partly why hostage memoirs dwell almost exclusively upon the internal experience of suffering, upon emotion, comradeship and the soul. Terry Waite still refuses to speak about the men who abducted him because he says some things are too dangerous to discuss. Anderson, however, scatters factual diamonds through his footnotes. The main kidnapper was a Lebanese Shia Muslim called Imad Mugniyeh. He appears in various guises in several hostage books. Anderson eschews Beirut political correctness to call Hizbollah exactly what it is: 'a well organised terrorist group.' It kept a network of spies and ran a computer data bank in Beirut to select its foreign victims. These activities were financed and directed by members of the government of Iran. Anderson refers in passing to the man chiefly responsible, the former Interior Minister, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi. While the Islamic regime in Iran remains in office and while these people go unpunished, the definitive hostage book cannot be written.
Anderson, the addicted journalist, did not return to the news. He detoxified in captivity and could look back on that mad existence with a clear head. 'I could now see what it had done to me and so many of my friends and colleagues,' he writes. 'No wonder I knew no more than two or three journalists still on their first marriage, and so many who were semi-alcoholic, or bitter and cynical, or just weird.' Lebanon exacted a price from everybody in return for that transient exhilaration. All the hostage authors try to celebrate the human spirit but it is hard not to feel that in each of them something has gone, never to return. There is too much of the Bible in Anderson's book yet I wish he had chosen to recall Habakkuk 2:17, quoted by Yasser Arafat during the 1982 Israeli invasion in an order of the day to his forces defending Beirut: 'For the violence done to Lebanon shall sweep over you, and the havoc done to its beasts shall break your own spirit.'
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